Fantasy

Death Shall Come

Death Shall ComeDeath Shall Come is the fourth novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series of books.  I have read the first three in December for three years so far and saw no reason to abandon this habit this year.  I think the first book was the best of all of them, by far.  However, the silliness and outlandishness of the stories entertains me and I look forward to my December reading.   Death Shall Come was first published in 2017.  

The thing that the end of the year (particularly these last two years) needs, is some entertaining, outlandish fun to be had. Something silly and preposterous that does not feel oppressive or dismal.  These Ishmael Jones books are utterly the best fit for my end of year reading. Every novel is basically setup the same way – a country house murder-mystery, which usually is quite gory and involves something un/supernatural.  Ishmael and his vivacious partner, Penny, end up wandering around locked rooms, long corridors, and the bodies pile up.  That’s it – that’s the story.

In this particular novel, we are given just a glimpse more into the character of the Colonel.  However, not much more – and I think nearly every page we are re-told how “military” he is.  Its tedious and I am sure impatient readers will hate the whole thing.  But it doesn’t bother me; I was weaned on Homer, do you know how many times we are reminded of the stock epithets for Achilles and Agamemnon? 

This story’s theme involves a family of collectors of ancient Egyptian artefacts.  The family’s name in the book is the Cardavans.  We are told that for generations the Cardavans have used their enormous wealth to acquire treasures and circumvent legal/monetary obstacles regarding possessing these treasures.  Readers with an ounce of history will know that the famous Howard Carter (“discoverer” of the Tut tomb) was financed by George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon.  A name similar to the characters’ in this novel.  The Cardavans have acquired a freshly-unearthed mummy and are currently relishing in their acquisition.  The mummy is allegedly one of the older Cleopatras (not the most famous Greek one). 

The “twist” in this book, I guess, is that the Colonel assigns Ishmael this mission – not for the mysterious Organization, but as a “favor” to him.  And the Colonel stays with us the entire story, not just appearing in the first and final chapters.  Overall, in this particular story, he was rather flat and one-dimensional. I think I preferred him at a distance.  In any case, he asks for this favor from Ishmael because the Cardavans are his in-laws.  Meaning, we get to meet the Colonel’s wife, Chloe.  

‘What are you so nervous about?’ said Penny.  ‘At best it’s a mummy, at worst it’s a serial killer.  We can handle either of those without breaking into sweat.’ – pg 139

So, Chapter Seven actually had a moment of pulse-pounding for me. I guess I am a silly, simple reader.  Nevertheless, when the suspense was building I was really on the edge of my seat.  Its not a long segment, maybe three pages, tops, but it was fun and I liked listening to the terrifying footsteps on the other side of the door. Listening to them listening to it listening to us. 

A personal anecdote of relevance…. one of my favorite books as a single-digit monster was The Secret of Terror Castle (1964). I read the ever-living hell out of that thing. I loved it. I read and re-read that one many times.  So, I do wonder if the impact of having read that story so many times developed a strong inclination toward country-home/Gothic castle murder-mysteries.  In any case, if the story contains any elements whatsoever of The Secret of Terror Castle, chances are I will be thrilled.  And this has borne out with the fact that I rated John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull (1931) so highly.  Anyway, it should come as no surprise that I will likely try to read the rest of Green’s Ishmael Jones series.

3 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars

The Gunslinger

Gunslinger coverThe Gunslinger by Stephen King was first published in 1982, but it was actually separate stories that were previously written that made this into a “fix-up” novel, as they are called. In 2003, King famously revised and updated the novel. I do not know if this is the second or third time reading this novel.  Every time I read it, though, I feel more or less the same way about it – its really good in retrospect after having read the next two books or so in The Dark Tower series. Taken on its own, it is exceedingly weird and disjointed and awkward.

For better or worse, it is a fact that in our lifetime, Stephen King is one of the most famous and well-read authors.  His name and works are included in that batch of fiction that have become cultural references, common knowledge, and household facts.  Even people who do not read at all (yes, horrifically, these are real) are able to have some concept/referent for ‘Stephen King.’  I have not read King like many of his fans. I have read maybe two or three of his non-Dark Tower books. I have no idea if he is a good author or not, because I feel like I cannot assess him accurately without reading far more of his catalogue. 

So, The Gunslinger is an odd fix-up of stories that King wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. There is not a whole lot for me to say about the novel because everyone on the planet has read it and has given their opinions on it. There is nothing new, surely, that I can provide regarding the actual novel and info about it. For example, many fans of the book absolutely adore the first line, which seems to evoke all the best feelings and images of all the best adventures and entertainments. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”  There it is, again. All the readers quote it and now I can be counted as one of them.  I think the critical point about this first line is that it is very deadpan and very simple. Three items and two actions: man in black, desert, gunslinger…. one fled, one followed.  Contained in this little statement is all the makings of the excitement and thrills and hopes and curiousity of all readers; it seems paradoxical that such a bland sentence can do so much.

The spare writing, though, in which each sentence seems to contain so much meaning and significance, is what I consider to be the overall characteristic of this novel.  It is spare like a desert.  The writing is matter-of-fact, but yet at times somewhat poetic.  However, the poetry is not flowery or fancy, it is just honest and matter-of-fact as the rest.  Instead of having “dynamic” characters who are overly complicated and full of layers of delusions, it seems these characters are blunt and direct and very honest. The main character, Roland, is utterly honest with the reader. 

Roland is a big deal.  He is a character that, in his will, his strength, his skill, and his honesty, he appeals to readers.  He is presented as a “simple man,” meaning he is unimaginative and not prone to time-waste.  However, he is also very complex because he is not a farmhand or a grunt or a lackey.  A character that wrestles with “inner demons” and with the fabric of the kosmos is hardly a “simple man.”  However, it is clear straightaway that Roland is also not a “good man.”  This is not a sinless, shining knight of virtue and holiness. So, he causes readers to constantly have to wrestle with his morality.

The novel is a sort of Western, Dark Fantasy, Steampunk mash-up that has a vast history and expanse of setting – but it also feels unclear and confused.  The lack of detail and linear layout makes for some of the dreamy and bewildered feeling in the book.  I doubt King, at the time, had any clear ideas about all of this and purposely left his world-building vague and open. He did a good job because there is definitely an ominous and mysterious kosmology that pervades every scene.  The Western is medieval in tone and that is a very cool spin on the medieval-based fantasy usually found in books. 

Not that all of this can be granted to King. He has always admitted that he was heavily inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1852).   In fact, this whole business is reduced a bit once the originality is denied it and we realize that Browning handed a very creative author a silver platter full of perfect delicacies and delights.  Both that work and King’s work are strange.  Dream-like and wondrous and maybe a bit apocalyptic.

The major thing that bothers me about King’s work is the vulgarness that comes through.  I mean, I rarely read anything so vile and vulgar. Horror, as I have said previously, is often vulgar. I do not care for this kind of writing and it always makes me wary of a soul that creates and writes such stuff.  In a sense, we all write about what we know and because I could never write with such vulgarity, I wonder about the writer who knows such stuff.

The reason I re-read this novel is because lately I have been sensing the cracks in the kosmos. Hold on! Do not click away thinking I am some looney! I have been working on linguistics/logic and the odd statements that defy the good, common, healthy reasoning that we all have come to know and love. Counterfactual, self-referential, contradictory, ambiguous, paradoxical sentences that most people shrug at, other people are amused by, and metaphysicians are deeply disturbed by.  Cracks in the world, my friends. The sentences that the computer programmers just want to ignore. The sentences that the poet knows about, but cannot understand the ramifications.

Plus, I have been reading Plotinus and Porphyry and Proclus. WE, the systematic Aristotelian science-men, have long since turned up our noses at such esoteric hogwash – all that Hermetica and astrology and alchemy and Kabbalism stuff that none of us take seriously. However, every great immense once-in-awhile there is a line or a comment in the Enneads or something that sends a bit of a chill, like a draft through a crack in a cellar wall. Mysticism and magis and its all very hocus-pocus, so we do not look at those parts directly; we dismiss them as silly esoteric junk that was ridiculously overlayed on the substantial and meaty ontology. I guess.

When Roland says: “The world has moved on,” it also feels like a cold draft. I feel like in 2021, with the strange things going on in the real world, yeah, it is easier to fall in step with Roland as he crosses the desert.  The best thing about Roland is that he takes it in stride. The world is dying, everything is wrecked, there are abominations and absurdities everywhere, the remnants of the future (somehow) – but yet Roland just accepts it as it is. Zen master level.  Pretty cool character, this Roland.

Overall, its hard to separate the vulgarity and the derivative context from the book.  So, sure this one is only two stars. But when I read further into the series and then look back, I want to give this maybe four stars.  Readers who have not read this (are there any?) will likely be shocked, confused and not know what to make of this craziness. Helps to think of the world moving on and there being cracks in the kosmos, I think.

2 stars

Dissolution

dissolutionDissolution by Richard Lee Byers is part of the large collection of Forgotten Realms novels.  I think that the dark elves, or Drow, are the most famous creations of this expansive franchise. This novel is book one in a miniseries of novels that contain the tale of the “War of the Spider Queen.”  Byers was carefully selected by managing members of the Forgotten Realms franchise to write this first novel in the miniseries, by which it was hoped new readers could approach the mythology and old readers would re-kindle their love for the franchise.  This first novel was published in 2002 and five others followed afterward, each from a different author.

I have not read much in the Forgotten Realms collection. I read, at least, the first two (very famous) novels in the Drizzt Do’Urden subseries; that would be R. A. Salvatore’s Homeland and then Exile.  I do recall reading some of the third Drizzt novel, but I honestly do not think I finished it. Based on the internal chronology of the franchise, the War of the Spider Queen novels occur just under a hundred years after the first Drizzt novel (Homeland) takes place.

Generally, I get the sense that these huge franchises of novels/games are looked down upon by the “reading elite” as hack/pulp meant solely to feed some stereotyped awkward love for these genres.  Somewhat like a soap opera for teenagers, I suppose.  I do think this is a prevailing opinion, but I do not think it is completely true. Sure, in every genre there is a grouping of zealously loyal fans.  However, when the fans are not in adoration of the most literary or academic pursuits, there does tend to be a negative view taken.  But there is a simple joy in following these serial, melodramatic (and often formulaic) fantasy-soap operas.  And, whether people like to admit it or not, there are some great creations that come out of these large franchise series.

The Drow, or dark elves, are one of those really interesting creations. If you think of Forgotten Realms, you will have some thought to the dark elves. They are something like – though I hesitate to push the negative analogy too far – the opposite of the stately and high-minded elves brought to us by J. R. R. Tolkien. Now, I know Tolkien’s elves are hardly original, but his representation seems to have supplanted the older Germanic/Scandinavian conceptions.  So, the Drow live in the Underdark (underground) and have a matriarchal society infused with magic.  It is hardly an amoral or anarchic society, but the rules are very much based on ambition, political power, uneasy alliances, and treachery. Love, compassion, mercy, and trust are not really parts of this world. Naturally, this is what makes these dark elves so dang interesting in any storyline.

Byers was elected to write the opening novel in this miniseries that is entirely focused on the Drow world. The storyline is vast and complex and he had to leave a lot of room for the following authors to work, while giving them a good footing. And so the majority of this novel is functional and introductory.  Byers gives us specific examples of the Drow behavior and activities.  Then, he begins to follow a couple characters specifically and begins the subplots.  The reader bounces back and forth between a variety of characters, some of these are more interesting than the others.  I will say that for the first half of the book the thread following Pharaun Mizzrym and Ryld Argith seemed stupid. It was the part that caused the most aggravation in my reading.

Finally, just past the halfway point, the Byers started to bring some of these threads together.  Finally, what seemed like pointless roaming in circles actually started to converge.  This was good because it was getting to be a real struggle reading along.

The only character – from start to finish – who I found continuously interesting was Quenthel Baenre.  Quenthel is a Drow priestess; in fact she is the Mistress of the clerical school in the dark elf city. Throughout the novel, I found myself following her exploits with more interest than those of the other Drow.

The last third of the novel gets quite intertwined in combat scenes, monsters, magic, and Drow treachery.  And, I will say, there are several scenes in this novel that are a bit darker and more gruesome than one would expect in franchise-owned pulp.  The novel serves its purpose – one does want to read further in the War of the Spider Queen and the Drow remain dark and treacherous. Overall, Byers does a solidly adequate job. But nothing here is beyond what one should expect and the novel has some awfully sluggish sections.

3 stars

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs (2011)

I recently read this novel – but have been sluggish about writing the review for it. My household *had to* read it because of the forthcoming MOVIE.  And, frankly, it has gotten plenty of good reviews on the Internet. Well, I think the main reason for my tardy review is simply that I was quite disappointed with the novel.  It was originally released in 2011 as Ransom Riggs’ first published novel.  Like a number of novels I’ve read in the last year, this one is a little non-traditional in its narrative.  The author developed the novel around vintage photographs that he found/collected. Allegedly.

I find it difficult to believe that one (the photos) truly preceded the narrative (novel).  I think, maybe, its more likely that the photos had some characteristic that the author focused on and then worked the story by bouncing back and forth between novel-writing and photo-gazing.

The novel is good and dismal and creepy and rather horrific for the first quarter of its pages. I think this is well written and the voice of the main character, Jacob Portman, is  realistic and honest. I was, however, surprised at how much the dude cusses. In a “young adult” novel it was a bit much. In any case, I did think the novel had a strong main character, some solid creepy elements, and a good setup.

But as the novel progressed, things started to fall apart. Mainly…. time travel. Oh my goodness doesn’t this trip up every author, screenwriter, and playwright. So, there is a basis of time travel – and it is an acceptable level of suspending disbelief. However, for whatever reason, I felt like the author kept fiddling with the concept and trying to tweak it just so. Instead of enhancing the setting of the novel, it made it convoluted, confusing, and a bit dumb. I want to write the sentence “the time travel didn’t make sense,” but obviously that is heavy with meaning already. I think Riggs just kept mauling the time travel element so much that it ends up just being a frustration.

The main character’s family is a wreckage. Once again, in handling these characters, I think the author went too far. He overwrote them and their troubles.  It is perfectly fine to have a character who has some struggles, but for this genre and for supporting characters – this was just too much. Maybe this is a nitpick? But honestly, I truly disliked Jacob’s father as the character seemed unrealistic and overdone.

But, worst of all, the title character, Miss Peregrine, is the biggest disappointment. I wanted her to be awesome. Like Professor X (sure, the Internet has its comparisons!), but more snappy and Gothic. Instead, she is really weak and lame. And useless.

Now, I have seen that in the movie the character of Miss Peregrine will be played by Eva Green, who I think is a striking actress/model. (I do know her from Mont Blanc and not from Penny Dreadful.)  I think Green is a good choice for the character – her visage, plus the way she easily handles camerawork, will make the character a lot better than the weak thing we find in the actual novel. At this point, she is a main reason to see the movie:  making characters stronger by being better than the characters themselves.

Overall, I do think I will read book two. I don’t feel a deep need to continue in the series, but I read things, so what’s another book?  Nevertheless, this is a darker read and a larger disappointment than I’ve read in awhile.

2 stars

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Green Rider

Green Rider - Kristen Britain; cover:  Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider – Kristen Britain; cover: Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider by Kristen Britain really does not seem like it would appeal to me, but I read it and I do not have a whole lot of bad things to say about it.  It was definitely surprisingly good; I suppose I must have had low expectations?  I only have two complaints about this novel, which was first published in 1998.  It is the first novel by the author and the first novel in its series. One of my complaints is that the novel is too long. The paperback runs to 471 pages, but I feel the story could have been ended closer to the “standard” 430 pages. The cover, by Keith Parkinson, made me really want to hate the main character because the girl looks like that mouth-breathing actress from the Twilight movie series…

I have read two of three of Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows” trilogy. I did not have very many nice things to say about those two books. Shame on me, but I allowed those novels to color my notions of other fantasy novels by a female author and with a female main character. Bad, bad chauvinist jerk!  However, there are some correlations here – both have strong female leads, both females have strong relationships with their horses, both of these are “epic fantasy” settings (swords and arrows, a king’s road, etc.)  Here is the crux of the matter:  if we compare the two stories, Britain’s is more balanced, honest, and “realistic” than that rubbish Lackey wrote, by a large margin.

I’ve given two reasons, so far, why I should not like this novel. The cover resemblance to the Twilight series and the similarities with the Lackey series. What possessed me to attempt reading this?! Finally, there is another reason.  I am not a wild maniac for things Irish. I have no issue with the Irish. But what else can I say – my heritage is much farther East. Celtic stuff and green stuff and difficult Gaelic words and Yeats and Joyce’s mythologies…. I mean, I don’t even like Guiness! So, with all this green and pseudo-Gaelic feel, I really had no business reading this novel.  Granted, the similarities to things-Irish is only with brief hints.

This is not grimdark, so fans of that subgenre should not expect the grim darkness found in those novels. Further, this novel should not be judged by comparing it to grimdark. I bring this up because this is an “older” novel – and since it was published, fantasy seems to have gotten a whole lot heavier and grittier.  I enjoyed this novel because it was really well-balanced.  There is an evil villain and some grisly monsters, but there are also light-hearted moments and a touch of silliness.

Karigan is at private school, she gets sent home and en route she gets waylaid by a dying Green Rider.  The Rider presses her into service to deliver the message he was carrying to the King.  Karigan does so and meets with assorted adventures. She, naturally, gets help when she needs it and often rethinks what incidents brought her to the path she is on.  She sometimes loses heart, but overall she “does the right thing” because she was raised rightly and is strong-willed.

I actually liked all of the characters. Maybe they are stereotypical and maybe this is perfectly “standard fantasy” fare, but I am very okay with that. The storyline was really quite obvious and almost on the “folk tale” level wherein everyone already knows the story and we are just here to see the presentation. It is like that joy small children get with having a story read to them that they already know by heart.

Around 310 there is a “big reveal” that all other readers will expect, but which, of course, surprised me. This comes late in the novel, and helps re-boost interest in a storyline that is dragging a bit. Another moment occurs on page 343; a villain is revealed! This moment is interesting because should flip the opinions of the reader who fell hook, line, and sinker for a particular fantasy trope. I am purposely being vague to not give away spoilers.

The magic system [using contemporary geek-terminology] is a bit wonky and specious. I do not think it is Britain’s area of expertise. Maybe in future novels she works this out better?  In this one, she doesn’t solidify what magic is, how it works, or where it comes from. Its everything it needs to be to whomever needs it.  Overall, the word I keep coming to with this novel is “balanced.”  It is not great literature, but it is interesting and engaging. I did not hate the characters and even though the plot was familiar, it did not feel labored. I was entertained.

4 stars

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

Blue FigurineThe Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs is the first in the Johnny Dixon series.  I have never read it before – but finally, in 2013, now that I am old and haggard, I finally got a copy.  I actually am working my way through as many John Bellairs novels as I can.  Overall, these are excellent.  I recently re-read The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which was as awesome as I remember it being when I was a small person.

But this novel is even better.  I was thoroughly impressed. I thought for sure that I was going to be somewhat disappointed – how could Bellairs do better than the other book I read?  And yet! And YET! This one is excellent.

As I mentioned, this is the first book in the Johnny Dixon series.  So here, I finally got a lot more background on Johnny’s grandparents and Professor Childermass. I learned more about how Johnny came to live in this town and about the school he attends. And the church that he attends.

First of all:  yeah, parents in 2013 who are all stuffy and politically-correct and shelter their munchkins are never going to let them read these books.  These books are all kinds of “inappropriate” – but not because of the usual reasons you might think.  There’s alcohol and Church and the adults are realistic.  Nothing sanitized, really, in here.  But it isn’t bawdy, rowdy, or uncouth, don’t get me wrong. Secondly:  Johnny is so full of guilt and low self-esteem that he probably isn’t the type of character one finds in current-day novels.  But he’s really a great kid! In fact, he’s the best! I love Johnny!

I love all of the characters.   And this story is creepy and eerie and has a lot of supernatural elements in it. And the supernatural elements are kept real and true – no one attempts to erase, explain, or devolve them. Awesome! I love the language and constructions that Bellairs uses.  He’s really a charming author and he writes with such a fun style.  I am subtly pressurizing my entire household to read this novel.

5 stars

Wolfhound Century

Wolfhound CenturyI am blessed to know some really cool people.  One of them is Little Red Reviewer – who loaned me an Advance Reading Copy of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins.  The novel was published in hardback in March of 2013.  I had my eye on it from the time I read snippets about it on some “upcoming novels” site.  I really enjoyed this book and I think I will probably eventually purchase a copy.  I am also given to understand that this is the opening book in a trilogy.  I think the next installment is due out in early 2014 (which seem really far away right now).

This book is not for every reader – this is not the sort of mass market paperback novel one picks up at the airport that contains one of the standard plotlines and uses stock characters.  Some people have compared this novel to China Miéville’s writings. I am not comfortable with that comparison, but I can see how some readers might feel there is a likeness.  Miéville is a unique and intelligent author, but I do not think that anything that is unique and intelligent therefore must take after him. The main element that sets this book apart is that the writing style is so unusual.

I really loved the writing style in this novel. I like the way that Higgins developed the setting of the novel; the setting is big, dark, real, and potent.  All of the descriptions used in the novel portray a great intensity.  Some readers have referred to this as “world-building,” again I differ because I feel world building is something less esoteric and more infrastructure related.  World building is making the map of the setting and making sure the physics is “sensible.”  What Higgins does in this novel, however, is poetry.  At no point did I feel that the writing was pretentious or bombastic, but each chapter was very well-written.  This is Higgins’ debut novel, though, and there were a few minor items where the writing is not perfect.  But the drop off is not steep. Overall, Higgins is an excellent writer.

The novel is set in an exceedingly interesting location, a sort of alternative Stalinist-Russia.  The country is surrounded by an immense forest and the terrain and the geography play a role in this novel.  Not merely in a way that maps out places, but in a way that actually infuses the plot itself and affects the characters significantly.   The pseudo-Stalinist Russia of the novel contains the dystopian elements of unending war, a police state, and a huge governmental edifice of buildings and departmental offices.  The weather is cold and rainy and dark.  And the landscape is full of bridges, streets, stonework, and iron.

The Vlast is the regime.  And in chapter 22, Higgins treats us to a scene reminiscent of 1984‘s “two minutes hate.”  In chapter 22, we are told that the main character:

….had looked up synonyms of Vlast once.  They filled almost half a column. Ascendancy.  Domination. Rule. Lordship. Mastery. Grasp. Rod. Control. Command. Power. Authority. Governance. Arm. Hand. Grip. Hold. Government. Sway. Reign. Dominance. Office. Nation.

But the novel is also fantasy. Here is a novel that is really difficult to jam into a genre. It’s fantasy – because it takes place in an alternative historical location, but also because it involves fantastic creatures like giants, golems, and “angels.”  I put quotes around angels because in this novel these creatures are nothing like any typical conception of angels.  Golems, giants, angels, magical properties, dryads – but all of these elements are written seamlessly into the novel so that it seems commonplace and normal and unremarkable that giants are puttering around a pseudo-St Petersburg.  The characters in the novel must deal with the Vlast as well as the supernatural.  This makes for a fascinating read.

Higgins is also, obviously, a very intelligent writer.  He has either done an extreme amount of research or he’s well-educated to begin with (perhaps both).  And it shows through this novel on every page.  There’s a great deal of conceptual apparatus here to play with – but it is all very subtle and seamless.  At no point does Higgins bash the reader over the head with any of these items.  And maybe things will be lost on some readers, or not resonate with others, but there are plenty of concepts that flesh out this novel so that it’s a full piece of literature and not simply a crime novel.  For example, the entire part of the storyline involving the artist Lakoba Petrov is representative of Higgins playing with aesthetics and politics and propaganda.  Awesome stuff.

Overall, this is definitely a five star novel.  It isn’t for children or the average reader – but it is a beautiful selection for those who like word craftsmanship, esoteric and dark settings, and intense storylines.  It really is not often one finds writing on this level – and it’s just super cool that the novel feels like Russia and has some fantasy elements.

5 stars

The Magicians

TheMagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman was released in 2009.  I finally got it in 2013 at a used book library sale.  For a dollar. I had seen it a couple of times for $3 for a new tradeback copy at Books-a-Million, but I passed it over and it was all sold out eventually.  Color me pleased when I found it in January for $1 for the hardback.  By that time, I had read a number of reviews on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com.   Reviewers keep reiterating that it is like an “adult Harry Potter” novel.  Well, no, I do not think it is.  Not that I have read the Harry Potter books, but I feel if you go into the novel thinking that you are setting incorrect expectations. Bottom line here:  Not an adult Harry Potter. Don’t believe the hype, folks.

The storyline itself is actually well-written.  Scenes move reasonably into other scenes, characters develop at a good pace, clues and hints throughout the story come back and play roles, and the balance between description and action is decent.  The conversation dialogue is actually fairly accurate for the characters.  It does include “adult language.” (It’s not adult – it’s called “cussin,’ folks.)  There is not an overabundance of hefty vocabulary (Cp. China Mieville) to bludgeon the reader with the author’s intelligence.  Some of the more causal speak actually seems forced – as if the author is more comfortable writing formally than colloquially.  For example, the phrase: “But still.”  What the heck does that mean? Nothing. It’s just a spoken phrase that has worked its way into everyday parlance. Things that like that pepper the novel; perhaps to give the reader the sense of reading about teenagers and college students.

And this is why I insist that the book is more like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History than the Harry Potter novels. The book is about smart, rich, entitled kids who are magicians.  They go to a secret University in order to formally train in magic.  Magic is not a thing of wonder and surprise. In this novel, magic is much more like a martial art, a skilled trade, or a scientific field.  The University is not a fun and mystical place.  So, if you expect the Escher-like corridors of Hogwart’s or the silliness of Wonderland – forget it.  That’s not what this novel is doing and complaining about this novel because it actually isn’t those novels is faulty.

The characters are easily dislikeable.  Really. I mean, who does not dislike young adults who are hedonistic and whine about how they are misunderstood and their lives are boring?  And this is not entirely unheard of.  I am sure Grossman has run across plenty of college students who have this air about them.  In fact, having spent some time in universities, I can vouch for the fact that some students even put on this sort of act because they feel this is how students are “supposed” to be.   If the average reader finds this all very abhorrent and toxic, well, they are probably overreacting.  It’s easy to hate characters for not being how we think they should be or because we are jealous of them, or because they are so very different from us.  But a good reader can move past that feeling and realize they are not the author and it’s not their story.

The main character is Quentin Coldwater.  He’s not a bad character, all things considered.  He is a bit tentative and cowardly, but very few young adults are actually authentically confident and secure.  He makes mistakes – not really bad ones, but things have a tendency to snowball on him.  And while it is good that he finds people at the University that he can belong among, they are also not the greatest influences he could find, either.  But that is exactly how real life is.  Perfection is somewhat rare in the real world.  I like Quentin well enough and I do feel bad for him at times. Some times I wish he would pull his head out of his butt and think.  Sometimes I understand him completely:

It was a glorious relief.  The numbness of it was just magnificent.  At the moment when it had been at its most intolerably painful, the world, normally so unreliable and insensitive in these matters, had done him the favor of vanishing completely.  — pg. 252

The character Alice Quinn is pretty cool as well. I really enjoyed the foray into her parents’ home – that was creative and interesting writing.  In fact, just because Grossman’s concept of magic is not that of Tolkien’s or Rowling’s does not mean his is weak or stupid. In fact, of them – his is actually the most fleshed out and developed.  He shows us magic in a variety of settings and uses.  And he presents a somewhat darker image of it – not the starry-eyed kiddos’ of Hogwarts.  Anyway, Alice is probably the best magician and student of the bunch.  She’s interesting and she is a good character to match with Quentin.  Their story develops and as it continues, I think readers have a lot of respect for her for a number of reasons.  Her insightfulness, her bravery, and her dedication.

I found Eliot to be the most tedious of characters.  In a lot of ways, he’s the most stereotypical character – one wants to say “yeah, he’s in the story because every story has one of him.”  I disliked him and I suppose he has a role to play, but honestly, he is arrogant and crass and a lot less likeable than the others.  He does take that archetypal character in a University, though. The aloof loner who is uppity and yet slums with the losers on occasion.

The novel uses the tools that C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling created.  I do not think this is a bad thing. I think it’s fairly gutsy and interesting.  I think readers who focus on the similarities and spend time calling Grossman’s work derivative are missing the good of The Magicians.  Using the tools the other authors provide, Grossman is telling us a different story.  The thing that I do not really like about Grossman’s story is the existentialist feeling it has.  Existentialism (to me) always seems dreary and navel-gazing. So, it was this element that weighed the novel down – and yes, at places, this is a heavy dismal thing.  Nevertheless, the ending leads us right into the sequel.  Maybe by then readers will stop comparing the novel to what it isn’t and read it for what it is?  And what it is, is a question of how much hope and redemption Quentin Coldwater can find in any world – Earth or Fillory.

2 stars

** Update:  The author of this book commented at me on Twitter. His comment suggested that since I gave Kafka’s “The Trial” only 2 stars, he feels his book is in good company (and I’m a “bad reader”).  My review was honest; apparently the author cannot take criticism. Also, in 2013 The Atlantic published a story: “Is Kafka Overrated?” – I agree with much of that article. Needless to say, I will not be reading anything further by Grossman.

Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler – Alexey Pehov; TOR

Shadow Prowler is the first book in the Chronicles of Siala series by Russian author Alexey Pehov.  It was originally written, in Russian, in 2002, but published by TOR in 2010 under English translation by Andrew Bromfield.  I bought my copy new – paperback – with the cover art by Kekai Kotaki.  It was a random book purchase – I saw it on the shelf and since this is “read Russians” year for me (sort of), I took it to the checkout.

This novel is at once a very good novel and a very bad novel. At 557 pages, it definitely qualifies as a typical epic fantasy novel. Ultimately, this is what is both good and bad about the novel:  typical epic fantasy.  Pehov nails each and every trope, cliché, and imitation found in epic fantasy novels.  So, in some sense, the originality is lacking. Because if you have read the Dragonlance Chronicles series, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, and anything by Tolkien, this will seem obvious and derivative. That’s bad, right? Or maybe not. But it could be.

The main character, Harold, is a master thief and is coerced through fate and scheming to embark on a quest that he’d rather not embark on. He’s presented as some sort of honorable thief. An anti-hero hero archetype.  The real reason he gets caught up in all of the trouble is based on some sort of honor code to the god of thieves regarding commissions. That’s a dubious reason to risk life and limb, right? Or is it? Not that this is new or original to any fantasy novel in history.  In fact, I can name at least two recent novels that share some of this archetype:  The Lies of Locke Lamora and Mistborn.   Thief, antihero. Been there, done that?

There are orcs and elves and demons.  And goblins. And dwarves. And gnomes. Yep – the whole gamut of races that one would find in World of Warcraft and EverQuest.  There are magicians and there are also shamen.  And priests.  So do you see how this book really takes the cake at stuffing the usual suspects into the “typical epic fantasy”?  This is a good thing. No, wait, it’s a bad thing. Or what is it?

Most of the characters act and speak precisely how one expects them to. The grizzled magician, the mentor of the main character, the band of rogues that join the quest, the elven royalty, the bad-guys, the tavern keeper:  they are stereotypical and obvious.  Only the main character has any depth, and honestly, he’s somewhat sarcastic and witty on a mild level. The only other character is a goblin who is the king’s jester and who is spunky and obnoxious.  Everyone else is carbon copy fantasy stock character. Which is a bad thing, right? No, no. It’s a good thing. Things do as they be.

The thing is – as derivative and obvious as this novel is (and it is, folks) – it’s also fun and interesting. As discerning, literary readers we can critique it to death regarding all of it’s obvious flaws. However, at the end of the day, I’d be lying to you if I said I did not enjoy it.  In fact, there are parts that were actually really (dare I say it?) gripping and interesting. Overall, this is a very fun novel. And I read novels to have fun and be entertained. For example, the part where the main character goes to the Forbidden Area of the city dabbles in ghostly Lovecraftian-scary stuff. (There are phantoms and zombies!!!!!)  And, honestly, this was a thrilling part of the novel – I could have read just a whole novel of the main character’s exploits in this scenario.  There are several “flashback”/hallucinations that take place that fill in background. And these were fun. I usually dread flashbacks because they tend to bore me. But, I cannot lie, these were actually kind of fun to read. And they did serve the purpose of filling in background. Late in the book, there is a death of a character and I have to admit, I was saddened by it. Silly ridiculous flat character died – but I sure did feel the tug on my Grinch-heart!

Another horrible thing (no! it’s not horrible at all. Yes it is. NO!) is that the storyline is spread out.  Some fantasy novels introduce characters, setup quest, go on quest. This one takes a multitude of “sections” that would be perfect for TV series.  We do not immediately jump out on the quest and head toward the main goal. Instead, the main character has a bunch of challenges and proximate goals to overcome before we even set out on the main storyline quest.  In fact, and here’s the kicker, by the end of the novel – our noble heroes haven’t even made it where they are going to accomplish the big goal! So if you really want to know – you gotta buy book two (and probably book three).  Not that the time in between was wasted or uninteresting, but it was surprising that the author did this. I mean, gutsy move, dude. And I am certain this turned off a lot of readers.

Speaking of which, Justin (on Goodreads and the blogger of Staffer’s Book Review) wrote this “Review” after giving this book one star. I agree with most of his complaints about the novel. Go ahead and read his commentary – because he’s correct and I think potential readers should read a variety of opinions.  But, and I daresay Justin might agree with me, it was a giggling-ly entertaining puff to read. And if I was so entertained, how can I give the novel one star?  I totally should not like this book as much as I did. And I should also not eat french fries, Taco Bell, or so much pizza………

So what should I rate this book? I am giving it four stars. It is stuffed with the obvious and is extremely derivative. But it’s still so much fun, I just kept turning the pages and I knew it was pulpy and stereotypical – but I was having fun reading it.  So, I totally agree with every one of the criticisms levied against this novel. But I still had a great time reading it. Shame on me: I enjoyed a silly “typical epic fantasy” novel.  And I went and bought book two. Russians gotta do what Russians gotta do….

4 stars